Category Archives: Development

Interview with Australian Council for Computers in Education Learning Network

Adam Holt and I were interviewed last night by the Australian Council for Computers in Education Learning Network about our not-for-profit work to improve educational opportunities for children in the developing world.

We talked about One Laptop per Child, OLPC Australia and Sugar Labs. We discussed the challenges of providing education in the developing world, and how that compares with the developed world.

Australia poses some of its own challenges. As a country that is 90% urbanised, the remaining 10% are scattered across vast distances. The circumstances of these communities often share both developed and developing world characteristics. We developed the One Education programme to accommodate this.

These lessons have been developed further into Unleash Kids, an initiative that we are currently working on to support the community of volunteers worldwide and take to the movement to the next level.

Published in Engineers Without Borders Magazine

Engineers Without Borders asked me to write something for their Humanitarian Engineering magazine about One Laptop per Child. Here is what I wrote.

The school bell rings, and the children filter into the classroom. Each is holding an XO – their own personal learning device.

This is no ordinary classroom. As if by magic, the green and white XOs automatically see each other as soon as they are started up, allowing children to easily share information and collaborate on activities together. The kids converse on how they can achieve the tasks at hand. One girl is writing a story on her XO, and simultaneously on the same screen she can see the same story being changed by a boy across the room. Another group of children are competing in a game that involves maths questions.

Through the XO, the learning in this classroom has taken on a peer-to-peer character. By making learning more fun and engaging, children are better equipped to discover and pursue their interests. Through collaboration and connectivity, they can exchange knowledge with their peers and with the world. In the 21st century, textbooks should be digital and interactive. They should be up-to-date and locally relevant. They should be accessible and portable.

Of course, the teacher’s role remains vital, and her role has evolved into that of a facilitator in this knowledge network. She is better placed to provide more individual pathways for learning. Indeed the teacher is a learner as well, as the children quickly adapt to the new technology and learn skills that they can teach back. Helping to keep the classroom session smoothly humming along are children who have proven themselves to be proficient with assisting their classmates and fixing problems (including repairing hardware). These kids have taken part in training programmes that award them for their skills around the XO. In the process, they are learning important life skills around problem solving and teamwork.

This is all part of the One Education experience, an initiative from One Laptop per Child (OLPC) Australia. This educational programme provides a holistic educational scaffolding around the XO, the laptop developed by the One Laptop per Child Association that has its roots in the internationally-acclaimed MIT Media Lab in the USA.

The XO was born from a desire to empower each and every child in the world with their own personal learning device. Purpose-built for young children and using solid open source software, the XO provides an ideal platform for classroom learning. Designed for outdoors, with a rugged design and a high-resolution sunlight-readable screen, education is no longer confined to a classroom or even to the school grounds. Learning time needn’t stop with the school bell – many children are taking their XOs home. Also important is the affordability and full repairability of the devices, making it cost-effective versus non-durable and ephemeral items such as stationery, textbooks and other printed materials. There are over 3 million XOs in distribution, and in some countries (such as Uruguay) every child owns one.

One Education’s mission is to provide educational opportunities to every child, no matter how remote or disadvantaged. The digital divide is a learning divide. This can be conquered through a combination of modern technology, training and support, provided in a manner that empowers local schools and communities. The story told above is already happening in many classrooms around the country and the world.

With teacher training often being the Achilles’ heel of technology programmes in the field of education, One Education focuses only on teachers who have proven their interest and aptitude through the completion of a training course. Only then are they eligible to receive XOs (with an
allocation of spare parts) into their classroom. Certified teachers are eligible for ongoing support from OLPC Australia, and can acquire more hardware and parts as required.

As a not-for-profit, OLPC Australia works with sponsors to heavily subsidise the costs of the One Education programme for low socio-economic status schools. In this manner, the already impressive total cost of ownership can be brought down even further.

High levels of teacher turnover are commonplace in remote Australian schools. By providing courses online, training can be scalable and cost-effective. Local teachers can even undergo further training to gain official trainer status themselves. Some schools have turned this into a business – sending their teacher-trainers out to train teachers in other schools.

With backing from the United Nations Development Programme, OLPC are tackling the Millennium Development Goals by focusing on Goal 2 (Achieve Universal Primary Education). The intertwined nature of the goals means that progress made towards this goal in turn assists the others. For example, education on health can lead to better hygiene and lower infant mortality. A better educated population is better empowered to help themselves, rather than being dependent on hand-outs. For people who cannot attend a classroom (perhaps because of remoteness, ethnicity or gender), the XO provides an alternative. OLPC’s focus on young children means that children are becoming engaged in their most formative years. The XO has been built with a minimal environmental footprint, and can be run off-grid using alternate power sources such as solar panels.

One Education is a young initiative, formed based on experiences learnt from technology deployments in Australia and other countries. Nevertheless, results in some schools have been staggering. Within one year of XOs arriving in Doomadgee State School in northern Queensland, the percentage of Year 3 pupils meeting national literacy standards leapt from 31% to 95%.

2013 will see a rapid expansion of the programme. With $11.7m in federal government funding, 50,000 XOs will be distributed as part of One Education. These schools will be receiving the new XO Duo (AKA XO-4 Touch), a new XO model developed jointly with the OLPC Association. This version adds a touch-screen user experience while maintaining the successful laptop form factor. The screen can swivel and fold backwards over the keyboard, converting the laptop into a tablet. This design was chosen in response to feedback from educators that a hardware keyboard is preferred to a touch-screen for entering large amounts of information. As before, the screen is fully sunlight-readable. Performance and battery life have improved significantly, and it is fully repairable as before.

As One Education expands, there are growing demands on OLPC Australia to improve the offering. Being a holistic project, there are plenty of ways in which we could use help, including in education, technology and logistics. We welcome you to join us in our quest to provide educational opportunities to the world’s children.

It’s about education, stupid!

There appears to be much confusion amongst the press and the general populace regarding the One Laptop Per Child Project, which I blogged about earlier. This article in the Murdoch press, for example, has stimulated some of these misconceptions. They stem from the false assumption that the OLPC is a computing project. “Don’t these kids deserve food, water, clothing and shelter first?“, some people ask.

The fact is that the OLPC is far more than a simple computing project. It is an education project, or more broadly, a development project. The computer is merely the tool to enable education and creativity. How can one learn when a textbook costs more than an average weekly wage? Imagine if you could interact with your textbook, in the form of games and exercises. Imagine if you could learn to write your own software for this device, and distribute it to help others in your community. You can create your own artworks, write your own novel or make your own music. Wireless mesh networking allows the distribution of data between computers, and even the sharing of one Internet connection across a villiage. For many households, the keyboard lights will be the only form of artificial lighting. The possibilities are effectively limitless.

The point that I am trying to make is that it is not the computer that is important, it is what you can do with it that truly matters. The computer is an enabler, a tool that allows people to ultimately create their own livelihoods and futures. There’s no point in keeping people dependent on handouts. Let’s encourage them to stand on their own feet.

Back in the developed world, I was able to attend a panel discussion for NSW ICT for the forthcoming state election. Pia made some good analysis of the event. In summary, the representative for the Liberal Party was completely and utterly useless when the question turned to open standards and FLOSS. Moreover, both sides (Labour and Liberal) would seemingly deliberately confuse open standards and open source when questioned about them. The key when questioning such people is to not mention open standards and open source together. Force them to address the issues separately, or they will conflate the two. The City of Munich was disparagingly referred to several times as an extreme case. What disturbs me is that there was specifically strong emphasis on NSW as a procurer and consumer of ICT, rather than as a producer. So while projects like the OLPC can promote local education and industry, the NSW government wants to keep us dependent upon foreign providers.

One Laptop Per Child (AKA: The January Chronicles, Part II)

There was enough at LCA to be excited about to give you heart palpitations. If I was forced to single out one thing, it would have to be the One Laptop Per Child Project (OLPC).

One of my primary interests has been the interactions between people and technology, and I have long felt that there has been scant attention payed to how this operates in developing countries. Sustainable development is a vital goal, and an important part of this ongoing process is the use of appropriate technology. This can range from bare hands and rudimentary tools to complex computational and engineering infrastructure. The key is to select what is most applicable in a given situation.

So-called ‘developed’ regions of the world might be able to accommodate expensive, disposable and inefficient technologies and methodologies. This has guided policy, R&D, production, distribution and use within this part of the world. The playing field is entirely different in developing regions, and so solutions need to be crafted with their needs in mind.

You can’t expect to successfully shoehorn a solution designed for Sydney onto Mogadishu, or even onto Maningrida. To date, however, most approaches try to do just that. This only works to an extent, if at all. In many cases it would be better to rethink things from the ground-up to come up with something more appropriate. This doesn’t mean that you’re throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Successful designs often base themselves upon existing policies, technologies and ideas, and then proceed to modify or redesign parts to fit their goals. The OLPC is a prime example of such an endeavour.

Whether it is successful or not is another matter. That remains up to the governments which purchase and distribute them, and the communities which accept them. The greatest challenge of the OLPC isn’t technical, it’s socio-political.